Dr. Joseph Ladapo was announced on Sept. 21, 2021, as Florida’s new surgeon general. Behind him is Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Michael Moline
Florida’s new surgeon general is Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a UCLA heart specialist who has fully embraced Gov. Ron DeSantis’ personal-freedom approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, judging by his remarks during a news conference on Tuesday.
DeSantis called reporters together to announce that he has chosen Ladapo to replace Dr. Scott Rivkees, who left the position on Monday following a bit more than two years in which he kept a low profile as the pandemic raged. The position requires confirmation by the Florida Senate.
The governor took the announcement as an opportunity to rail against federal public health priorities, including the Biden administration’s decision to hold back monoclonal antibody treatments that DeSantis has been emphasizing lately.
That said, when the rationing started, Florida got the largest supply of the treatments, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
President Joe Biden have exchanged heated words before over their differing approaches to COVID policy, but DeSantis’ rhetoric reached a new peak on Tuesday, accusing the president of active malevolence toward his state.
“He hates Florida more than anything, and this is absolutely going to hurt people,” DeSantis said.
“There’s a time for politics — I get that. But, you know, to be so obsessed with trying to kneecap Florida any way you can that you would take away lifesaving treatments — I’m sorry, some things should be beyond politics.”
Ladapo will work under an arrangement similar to Rivkees’ — involving a two-year contract (with a possible three-month extension) as surgeon general, presiding over the Florida Department of Health, and a separate deal with the University of Florida College of Medicine.
His U.F. salary will be $262,000, representing the middle of the pack among similarly credentialed medical colleagues.
“We anticipate that the Florida Department of Health will contribute a significant portion of this salary based on the percentage of time he dedicates to the surgeon general role,” Ken Garcia, a spokesman for the medical school, said via email.
The base state salary for surgeon general is $250,000 per year. Ladopo’s contract was not immediately available but, under Rivkees, the state contributed $35,000 per fiscal quarter to the university covering his surgeon general duties.
Ladapo is a cardiologist who was an associate professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine; previously, he was on the faculty of the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine and a staff fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to his UCLA bio.
He earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a Ph.D. in health policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He immigrated to the United States from Nigeria.
The administration sidelined Rivkees after he departed from the administration line on managing COVID in April 2020. He even was blocked from answering questions from members of the Legislature.
Ladapo, by contrast, is self-described signatory to the Great Barrington Declaration who considers one of DeSantis’ key COVID advisers, Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, “a good friend of mine.”
The declaration, which Bhattacharya helped draft, argues for taking pains to protect older and more vulnerable people from the coronavirus while leaving younger and healthier people free to become infected and build herd immunity. It is solidly at odds with the bulk of scientific and medical opinion about managing the pandemic.
The document describes the “devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health — leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.”
“There are a couple of things that I didn’t totally agree with” in the declaration, Ladapo said.
“But the spirit of what they believe — that, you know, we need to respect human rights; that, you know, people do have autonomy over their lives and it’s not OK — it’s not even not OK — but it’s not virtuous and it’s not right to just sort of take away those rights from individuals. I completely agree with that. That’s why I signed it.”
Ladapo insisted that science shows that natural immunity imparts “great protection, terrific protection, durable protection, robust protection” from reinfection with serious symptoms.
DeSantis accused federal public health authorities of playing down the role of natural immunity because they don’t want to discourage people from getting vaccinated.
“They think if you tell people recovery from COVID provides strong protection, that some people will say, ‘Oh, I might as well just go get infected,’ DeSantis said. “I don’t think most people would do it, but even if someone does you have to say the truth to people,” the governor said.
“You can’t tell noble lies to try get them to behave in a way that you think you want them to behave in,” he said.
He accused the feds of playing down monoclonal antibody treatments, which DeSantis has been promoting heavily through state-backed clinics, for the same reason — that it would discourage vaccination.
Biden’s “Path Out of the Pandemic” plan identified monoclonal antibody treatment “as a key tool to improve health outcomes, prevent hospitalizations and reduce the strain on overburdened hospitals.” The plan also included strike teams to ensure more patients can access these “lifesaving COVID-19 therapeutics.”
However, with seven states including Florida consuming 70 percent of the nation’s supply, the administration took control of the monoclonal antibody stocks to ensure doses are available to patients elsewhere.
Ladapo was asked whether the state should do more to promote vaccines.
“The state should be promoting good health, and vaccination isn’t the only path to that. It’s been treated almost like a religion and it’s just senseless. There are lots of good pathways to health and vaccination’s not the only one,” he said.
Other strategies include “losing weight, exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables.”
He stressed three points regarding his approach to COVID.
One: “We’re done with fear. That’s been something that unfortunately has been a centerpiece of health policy in the United States ever since the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s over here. Expiration date. It’s done.”
Two: “We’re going to be very explicit about the differences between the science and our opinions.”
Three: “We are going to never lose sight of the fact that public health is not one thing. … It’s not about how many cases of COVID there are in a location. And that is a part of public health but it’s not the only thing. And, as all of you know, that’s the way public health has been treated over the past year and a half.”
Regarding fear’s role in the pandemic response, a reporter asked Ladapo about the role of conspiracy theories in driving vaccine resistance.
“Part of why that is an issue is because of the climate of distrust that had been engendered over the past year and a half. And that was a direct result of scientists — my colleagues, some of them — taking the science and, basically, misrepresenting it to fit their agendas, their interests, what they wanted to see people do,” Ladapo said.
He said he supports vaccine education efforts but insisted the decision about whether to take the shots should be left to individuals.
He rejected the idea of lockdowns — forcing nonessential businesses to close and people to isolate to contain the virus, saying evidence shows they don’t work.
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